Old Money

Kevin Lewis

February 10, 2024

Gold and Silver: Relative Values in the Ancient Past
James Ross & Leigh Bettenay
Cambridge Archaeological Journal, forthcoming

We have documented more than 200 relative values of gold and silver across almost 3000 years (2500 BCE-400 CE) to establish value benchmarks for essentially pure metal. Our aim is to improve understanding of ancient economies by enabling regional and temporal comparisons of these relative values. First, we establish silver as an early, reliable benchmark for valuing gold of varying purity before implementation of parting. Whilst purity accounted for two to threefold variation in the value of gold, we conclude that availability was more influential. Access to Nubian gold until about 1100 BCE seems an important influence on gold-silver value ratios in Egypt and the Near East, which increased significantly following loss of this source. This investigation yields a suite of relative values for essentially pure gold and silver, subdivided by regions and intervals from 2500 BCE-400 CE. These will enable future comparisons of precious metal-denominated costs of labour and commodities, including with today.

Transport Costs and Economic Change in Roman Britain
Scott Ortman et al.
European Journal of Archaeology, forthcoming

Reductions in the cost of transporting manufactured goods have been an important element in economic development in the recent past, and previous research suggests that the Roman period in Britain also saw substantial reductions in such costs. The authors investigate how far it is possible to measure changes in transport costs by considering the spatial distributions of pottery from known Roman production locations over time. Their analysis of an extensive database of pottery assemblages is designed to evaluate a series of expectations concerning how reductions in transport costs may have affected such assemblages and their distribution. Results suggest that costs were reduced by a factor of about two, leading to related changes in pottery production, distribution, and consumption over time. The ability to quantify changes in transport costs opens new perspectives for investigating the general determinants of economic development using archaeological data.

Visible Wealth in Past Societies: A Case Study of Domestic Architecture from the Hawaiian Islands
Mark McCoy & Joseph Panuska
Cambridge Archaeological Journal, forthcoming

Domestic architecture is increasingly revisited as a source of data about wealth inequality in the distant past via the Gini coefficient, a statistical tool often used in economics to compare income inequality. Many areas -- including South America, Africa, South Asia and Oceania -- remain under-sampled, making it difficult to develop a more complete picture of ancient political economies. In this paper we present a first look at this measure in the Hawaiian Islands. These data show that during the period prior to contact with Europeans inequality was extremely high, most similar to autocratic archaic states. We also found geographic patterning that may ultimately be linked to dryland (non-irrigated) farming. On islands reliant on dryland farming (Mau'i, Hawai'i), we find distinctively less inequality than elsewhere, or larger house sizes. We hypothesize these may have been innovations in how wealth was made visible to create and maintain cooperation in places where more labour would have been required to grow surplus. More research is necessary to test this hypothesis, investigate alternative interpretations, and to put these findings in larger regional context within Polynesia.

Diet, Status, and Incipient Social Inequality: Stable Isotope Data from Three Complex Fisher-Hunter-Gatherer Sites in Southern California
Mikael Fauvelle & Andrew Somerville
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, March 2024

How different were the lives of elites and commoners in early complex societies? This paper examines this question using data from three fisher-hunter-gatherer sites in southern California. Using shell bead counts from burials as proxies for social status and previously published human stable isotope values as indicators of dietary practices, we examine the relationship between diet and status across a period of major sociopolitical change. Our results found no significant relationships between the quantity of beads and stable isotope values, indicating that differential access to foods was not a significant way in which status was manifested in these communities. Instead, we suggest that activities including ownership of sea-going canoes, access to imported goods, and the provisioning of community feasts were likely venues for elite status signaling.

Wealth in Livestock, Wealth in People, and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of Jordan
Max Price & Cheryl Makarewicz
Cambridge Archaeological Journal, forthcoming

Within archaeology, the value of livestock is usually presented in terms of use values, the calories and products animals provide humans. Yet domestic animals are also sources of wealth that accrue symbolic and social values, tying livestock production to the reproduction of human social relations. Taking a Marxist perspective that recognizes dialectical relations between forms of value, we develop a model based on ethnographic examples in which the cycling between use value and social/symbolic values adhering to wealth in livestock are mobilized for the reproduction of 'wealth in people', or the accumulation of rights stemming from relationships between people. This model of cycling between forms of value can be applied to many ethnohistorical agropastoral political economies. We apply it to Pre-Pottery Neolithic B societies (c. 8500-7000 BC) in Jordan. During this time, the mode of production shifted from one grounded in the community to one centered on extended households. We suggest wealth in people was a key asset for LPPNB households and that wealth in livestock served as a major component of, and a particular 'moment' within, its reproduction. This might help explain the accelerated pace by which livestock production overtook hunting in the southern Levant in the eighth millennium BC.


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